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American History: February '01 Letters

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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THE FIRST TO FIGHT

When I received the October 2000 issue, I eagerly turned to the article about the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Regiment ("A Gallant Rush for Glory" by William C. Kashatus), but to my dismay I found it to be a rehash of the same tired old story–the glorious 54th Massachusetts proves to the nation what the first black unit could do.

At least one other black volunteer unit has far more weight to its claim of being the first under arms or in combat. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was sworn in as a regiment on January 13, 1863. Its colonel's date of rank was preceded only by the commander of the 1st South Carolina Colored Infantry, not by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. As Kansas was a free state, this means that the 54th was not the first black unit under arms from the free North. Also, the 1st Kansas Colored took part in its first major battle at Honey Springs in the Indian Territories on July 17, 1863. Together with a surprisingly diverse group of volunteers (white, assorted Indian tribal bands, and blacks) and a small force of Regulars, the outnumbered Union troops turned back invading Rebel forces in an action with more far-reaching results than those achieved by the Union attack on Charleston's defenses.

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Charles Temm, Jr.
Salem, Alabama

William C. Kashatus replies: Mr. Temm's contention that the 1st Kansas was the first black infantry to see combat from the free North is arguable at best, considering that many of the men who filled the ranks of that infantry were runaway slaves from Missouri. Nor did the 1st Kansas' July 17 engagement at Honey Springs precede the 54th's skirmish at James Island, South Carolina, which occurred the day before, on July 16, 1863. To suggest that the 54th's famous assault on Fort Wagner is a "tired old story" is to ignore the contemporary relevance of that significant event.

The 54th may not have been integrated in manpower, but it certainly was in spirit. Shaw and his white officers refused pay until their black troops were given the same salary as white soldiers. They served with the knowledge that they, like their men, would be put to death if captured. The officers not only fought alongside their men but were also among the 271 killed during the siege of Wagner.

At a time when the most pressing social issue in this nation is the troubled state of race relations, the story of the 54th cannot be told often enough, especially to the younger readers of American History.

CLYDE BARROW PRAISES HENRY FORD

In "The Raid on Eastham" (October 2000), John Neal Phillips mentions the Ford V-8 coupe that infamous gangsters Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow used as a getaway car during their clashes with the law in the 1930s.

An interesting footnote to the article is that on April 13, 1934, a little more than a month before his final showdown with the law, Clyde took time out of his busy criminal career to write a letter to Henry Ford extolling the virtues of Ford's V-8 engine. Barrow told Ford he admired the machine's "getaway power." He explained that his evaluations were based on experiences that "hasent been strickly legal."

The original handwritten letter, complete with misspellings and grammatical errors, is on display at the Automobile Pavilion of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Joe McElwee
Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania

STEPHEN AMBROSE'S BOOK

In reference to "The Central Pacific Attacks the Sierra Nevada" from Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like it in the World (October 2000), isn't it time to admit that, your warm feelings for your former colleague and his skill as a historian aside, there is simply nothing new to say about the building of the transcontinental railway and the ensuing scandals?

Another more extensive history of the subject has just been published. David Howard Bain's book Empire Express is exhaustive but not exhausting. I've added it to my extensive railroad library.

Martyn J. Hodes
San Diego, California

 

INSPIRED BY THE GREAT ORATOR

Even though I have read much about the John Scopes trial, I found "Evolution on Trial" (August 2000) to be an interesting article. What I found even more fascinating was the accompanying "Time Traveler" section on Dayton, Tennessee, which stated that William Jennings Bryan founded Bryan College in 1930. That would have been impossible, as he died five days after the July 1925 trial ended.

C.J. (Linda) Hart
New York City, New York

Editor's reply: The movement to found Bryan College started at the beginning of the Scopes trial, when local Dayton business and professional people interested in building a Christian college approached William Jennings Bryan for his assistance in organizing it. Bryan attended committee meetings and looked at various sites during the trial, but he died shortly after the trial ended. It took five more years to build the college, and the school opened in 1930. Although Bryan was the inspiration for the college, and it was founded in his honor, he was not technically one of its founders.



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